Here’s the transcript from the ABC Radio studio (Sydney), sound recording broadcast on the science program, Ockham’s Razor, presented Robyn Williams.
Robyn Williams: Well, it’s now the end of NAIDOC week, when Australians celebrate Aboriginal culture. So it’s entirely appropriate that our speaker, Dr. Lisa Roberts, shares a personal history of indigenous traditions – looking at the land and at nature as a place without boundaries.
This approach, a holistic one as it’s sometimes called, is also part of Western science. Take the work of E. O Wilson for example. The Harvard professor who studied ants for decades. He’s a very kind and immensely courteous man, who can describe an individual ant but who can also see them grouped together in their thousands, as a kind of collective intelligence that enables ants to build cast nests, termites to become architects, erecting tall buildings of their own and each to layer their societies, given different roles in the community coordinated by chemical signals.
But E. O. Wilson has also been criticised – starting at the time of his publication of the book Sociobiology – for leaping perhaps too quickly from insects to people.
Is Australia like an ant society? Dr Lisa Roberts is a visiting fellow at the Department of Science at the University of Technology Sydney, and at the Department of Marine Biology, Australian Antarctic Division.
Lisa Roberts: I work with scientists as an artist, to expand and connect our understandings, of how living things (including humans) respond to climate change.
Just recently someone found me on the Internet, and confirmed a family rumour of an Indigenous Australian ancestor on my mother’s side.
For me, this chance connection makes sense of what I do, and what I value.
Indigenous Canadian scholar, Shawn Wilson tells us that Indigenous research methods are available to anyone, for collective knowledge production, as well as traditional knowledge conservation – that Indigenous and Western research can, and must align, to inspire and inform right action.
Indigenous research methods involve listening to each other and to the environment that sustains us … they involve dance and drawing … sensing and expressing our connection to land … and telling stories about how to maintain it.
I read Edward Wilson’s Letters to a young scientist and consider them revelations for understanding how living things interact for mutual benefit as well as competition. Wilson argues that we interact on many levels, as if by chance, as part of our evolving biological nature. Like the ants Wilson studies, we follow our senses. When Wilson talks about ants, could he also be describing future humans? He writes:
Life is Spartan, and any deviation from the rules of the group, any attempt to reproduce or to attack others, is punished by death. Corpses of the workers that have died for any reason are eaten. Workers who grow ill or suffer injuries are also eaten. Communication is almost wholly by pheromones.
Wilson recognises the ‘ultimately biological nature of our species’, and the world as an interconnected whole. To me, this view aligns with an Indigenous perspective, where stories are passed down to conserve collective knowledge. But unlike ants, so far as we can tell, we are self-conscious, and capable of reason and compassion.
Wilson describes the significant questions for scientists as ‘holy grails’. He shares his own experience of how important questions arise: from a passion formed early on in life; from sustained effort, focus, and chance. He urges young scientists to recognise what drives them to understand a particular thing, and to simultaneously be awake to their main research path opening up unexpectedly, in a new direction. He says ‘Humanity needs more experts who have the passion and breadth of knowledge to know what to look for…’.
Recent research suggests that we are attracted to people whose body smells are very different from our own. This makes sense of me having a European father and an Indigenous Australian mother, and of being an artist with a scientist for a mate.
I met my partner In Antarctica, and that was unexpected. From experience of that place, and conversations with scientists, I saw humans on that continent as tiny ants. My mind and my heart… opened to the beauty of the tiny life forms that sustain us – the phytoplankton (or algae) in the ocean – that produce every second molecule of oxygen that we breathe.
I learned that we, like other living things, shape the environment to suit our desires. I realised that in the face of global warming and mass extinctions, we continue to destroy the natural world that sustains us, when we are the centre of our own attention.
This human-centred view leaves its mark in the geological records. It’s called the Anthroposcene, identified by layers of carbon in glacial ice and sea floor sediments, that trace our massive burning of fossil fuels… since the industrial revolution. Think of those Industrial Age coal-mining towns covered in black soot.
We know about the impacts of the Anthroposcene through art and science. For example James Balog’s film, ‘Chasing Ice’ is a time-lapse study of glacial ice melting – an unsettling mix of beauty and factual evidence.
As researchers, in art and science, we each contribute to understanding a massive body of interactions that make up the living world.
My contribution to understanding comes from working as an artist with scientists. For example, I worked to understand the behaviour of Euphausia superba (Antarctic krill), a keystone species in the ocean’s food chain. I now know how krill have sex, and where they do it, and that the entire krill population is likely to collapse by 2300, due to ocean acidification caused by increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. And if you take into account the impacts of expanding krill fisheries, I expect that collapse is more imminent.
I am always on the look-out for things that connect to my bits of understanding. At the University of Technology Sydney, I have found scientists whose passion is to understand the sexual behaviours of fish, and the productivity of the phytoplankton (algae) that they feed on. I am learning how normal patterns of mating behaviours are changing with increasing temperature variability. Chance conversations with these scientists have inspired collective production of animations and other art works, that render visible connections, known and felt though science and art, between the living things that interest us.
As Wilson says, “When conducting research, it is not uncommon to stumble upon an unexpected phenomenon, which then becomes the answer to a previously unasked question”. I had no idea that working in Antarctica would lead to my ‘holy grail’, to ask, ‘What is the value of scientists talking with artists?’.
My art research with scientists has led to new understandings of Antarctic krill, to questions about the phytoplankton they feed on, and to visualising earth (once again) as the central focus for humanity – not as the central point around which all matter is arranged, but as the source of life itself. My passion is to inspire more artists and scientists to initiate their own conversations.
A new focus on life, understood through art and science, may reconnect humanity to ancient knowledge; art and science inspired by nature may once again inspire belief in our selves as part of life, and encourage each of us, in our own unique, and unpredictable, research journey.
Wilson sees beauty in tiny ants, with their behaviours, like our own, as part of life’s process, where “all of living structures are but the interplay of organic molecules”.
Since working in Antarctica (in 2002), I see more artists reflecting this understanding in their work, and the beauty of this reality being recognised and valued.
Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn inspires new and ancient knowledge, that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth…. and all ye need to know”.
Could beauty be a form of energy that art and science may never truly know, apart from an experience, available to anyone open to that, of being part of life evolving.
As bits of understanding connect, we may recognise the choreography of ancient natural forces, and our own unpredictable part in the dance.
I agree with Edward Wilson, that research is following your nose, but not without a breadth of knowledge, to know what to look for, or the openness to know what we’ve found. We follow an instinct and subject that to analysis.
I see research in art and science as a creative, chancy process, where we hope to be surprised … and to surprise.
Robyn Williams: Dr Lisa Roberts, who mentioned poet John Keats just now – Keats was of course, also a scientist. Trained in medicine, and he took that part of his learning very seriously indeed. Dr Roberts is a visiting fellow at the Department of Science at the University of Technology Sydney, and with the Antarctic Division in Hobart. Next week we go to Cambridge, for a talk on risk from professor Herbert Huppert. I’m Robyn Williams.
- Dr Lisa Roberts
- Visiting Fellow, UTS Faculty of Science
Visiting Scientist, Australian Antarctic Division
- Robyn Williams
- Tiger Webb